We said we would be there when the Nationals got good. So now that they finally are, where are we?
For a team that finds itself in first place 29 games into the season, the Nationals' attendance figures have been shockingly low--especially considering that in past years, the 29-game mark has been right around the time realistic playoff hopes for the team have evaporated.
If you take away the season's opening home series (every team draws well for their first series) and the three games this past weekend against the Phillies and their traveling band of enemy gate-crashers, the Nats have failed to draw 25,000 fans in eight of their other nine home games so far this year. In six of those nine games, the total number of fans has been under 20,000. Their midweek (Monday through Thursday) average attendance for the season so far (not counting opening day) is 17,900. In a building that can hold more than 41,000, that's not good.
On April 16, the night Stephen Strasburg made his season debut at Nationals Park, the team drew an astonishingly meager 16,245. On May 1, the night of Bryce Harper's home unveiling--an event that had nearly a week of advance billing as Harper made his Major League debut over the preceding weekend in Los Angeles--the turnstiles clicked just 22,675 times. The next night, just 16,274 turned up to see Harper go three-for-four in his second home game.
The Nationals are finally giving Washington a reason to care, and we aren't responding--at least not in person.
All of this reminds us there is a vast difference between wanting a baseball team and actually having one. Ten years ago, we Washingtonians banged the drum with fervor and frequency to let Major League Baseball know we wanted a team of our own. Ever since the Senators left for Texas in 1971, we proclaimed it to be unjust that a city of our size and stature would be without a big league club. How could the nation's capital not have an entrant in the national pastime? Sure, we had the Orioles 35 miles up the road, and that Ripken fellow certainly gave us some nice memories, but we are Washington, damn it! We want a whole sandwich to ourselves--not merely the half Peter Angelos didn't eat.
And so we promised we would love, honor and cherish a DC-based franchise if Commissioner Selig would see fit to bestow one on us. But when the Expos finally came south of the border in 2005, it turned out our love wasn't quite so unconditional. After the novelty of the Nationals' inaugural season wore off, fans were left unmoved by an antiquated RFK Stadium and a franchise that had been badly mismanaged since Major League Baseball took over its stewardship in 2002. The net result was a Nationals team that finished in last place in five of its first six years of existence, prompting fans to leave the following outgoing greeting on their collective voicemail: Call us when you don't stink.
But now the team is certifiably good. So why are fans still largely staying away?
In fairness, it took the Caps a couple of decades to develop a rabid following. Washington's hockey team always had a loyal base, but even in 1998, their two home games in the Stanley Cup Finals were largely populated by Red Wings fans. It wasn't until the Ovechkin era and the accompanying assumption that the team would compete for a division title on an annual basis that the Caps started to post regular sellouts. Perhaps once Strasburg, Harper, and company start accruing similar results, the increased ticket demand will follow.
Until then, Nationals management is forced to coax and prod its fanbase to the ballpark with a combination of incentives and guilt. This past weekend's Our Park campaign, designed to wrest control of the Nationals' home stadium back from road-tripping Phillies fans, was at the same time ingenious and demeaning. It should not be necessary for a first-place team to come up with a marketing scheme to ensure a home game doesn't feel like a road game. I went to the ballpark on Saturday, and while the attendance was a robust 39,496--the highest since the home opener--it seemed to me that at least one-third of the crowd was still partial to the Phillies. That's demoralizing.
For next Wednesday's game against the Pirates, the Nationals have announced a special offer at the concession stands: a beer and a bag of peanuts for $5. I admire their aggressiveness when it comes to promotions, but that sounds more like a happy hour special at Bennigan's than something you'd find at a Major League ballpark. You know what the Yankees offer for $5? Air.
If you take a moment to dissect what the Nationals have done over the first six weeks of the season, it's fairly remarkable. Their pitching staff has posted the lowest ERA in baseball while featuring two starters who have undergone Tommy John surgery on their elbows. Ten of their 18 wins have been decided by one run, and they've done it all without their clean-up hitter, Michael Morse, their closer, Drew Storen, and their most experienced starting pitcher, Chien-Ming Wang. Wouldn't you pay to see a group like that? (If you've paid to see the Wizards at any point over the past two years, that's a rhetorical question.)
As a baseball town, we are officially out of excuses. We can't complain about the quality of the ballpark anymore. Nationals Park (not withstanding that left-field parking structure that inexplicably obscures the view of the Capitol) is truly one of the most enjoyable new venues in baseball. We can't claim the owners are cheap (see Jayson Werth's contract). And we can't complain that the team doesn't win. For all of us who spent years clamoring for a baseball team in this town, it's time to do what real fans do: show up.